Carrie Myers, MS, has been in the health and exercise field for more than 35 years and a freelance health and fitness writer and editor for more than 25 years. She has a bachelor of science degree in exercise science and health education and a master’s degree in health psychology. She is also a certified life and health coach, a certified Intuitive Eating Counselor, a published author, speaker and owner of CarrieMichele Co., a women’s wellness and lifestyle company.
Coaching Your Clients to Greater Resilience
Without question, the first half of 2020 has given all of us a chance to measure or even test our levels of resilience. Whether it’s job uncertainty, the loss of friends or family members, increased isolation or simply bearing the psychological weight of so many unknowns, few, if any, can say we haven’t been impacted in some way. Our levels of resilience have determined, in part, how we have responded to these fears and challenges.
When I think of resilience, I picture myself as a little girl jumping on a trampoline. Maybe that’s because one of the definitions of resilience is “able to bounce back,” or as Philip Levy, PhD, and Lynn Levy, PhD, coauthors of The Resilient Couple: Navigating Together Through Life, say, “Resilience is the ability to bounce forward in the face of a challenge that upends your life. Resilience makes an enormous difference, allowing people to navigate situations that might have seemed impossible otherwise.”
“Life is full of uncertainty and unpredictability, but the way we navigate and respond to it can be within our control—more than we realize,” says Andreas Michaelides, PhD, Chief of Psychology at Noom. “Resilience is a muscle that we can build over time by developing thoughts, behaviors and actions that help us weather any storm. While no one wants to be faced with things like stress, trauma, suffering or difficult emotions, it is possible to manage them and even experience personal growth in the process.”
And it is in life’s difficulties and adversities, say many experts, where true growth happens—if one chooses to practice resilient behaviors and beliefs. As a health and exercise professional, you can positively impact your clients by coaching them to be more resilient and ultimately guiding them toward growth.
What’s the Difference Between Coping and Resilience?
I recently wrote an article on stress and coping, which offers several coping methods, including emotional-focused and problem-focused methods. While coping is related to resilience, they are two different things.
“Coping skills can be thought of as the building blocks of resilience,” describes Michaelides. “They are the actions you take to navigate difficulties, while resilience is what you develop as a result of those actions.”
Greg Hammer, MD, author of GAIN without Pain: The Happiness Handbook for Healthcare Professionals, adds, “Resilience may be described as the ability to adapt positively, as opposed to coping in such a way that we are barely getting by and living with chronic stress. When we’re resilient, we can deal with adversity in our lives, while maintaining healthy levels of adrenaline and cortisol, as well as sleep, exercise, and nutrition.”
As an example, Hammer describes someone going through a divorce. “Some might judge that a friend is ‘coping’ with a divorce, for example, since they are going to work, doing their job well enough and engaging in positive interactions with others. Without sufficient resilience, however, they may be suffering from chronic stress, anxiety and depression.”
Research shows that when we’re faced with adversity, there are three levels of comebacks: survival, recovery and thriving. Several variables come into play, determining at which level we make our comebacks. These include:
- Coping skills
- Sense of coherence
- Social resources
- Low fear of failure
- Tolerance of uncertainty
The higher an individual’s level of these traits, the higher their level of resilience will be. Notice that resilience focuses on positive—or promotive—factors; in this way, resilience falls under a positive psychology paradigm, as opposed to a more traditional approach, which focuses on a person’s risk factors and what needs to be “fixed.” Promotive factors can be broken down into two primary categories: assets and resources. Assets are those qualities that reside within each of us, such as self-esteem and self-efficacy. Resources include our external support systems, such as friends, family or, in the case of clients, you.
Measuring and Building Resilience
If resilience coaching is something you’d like to add to your practice, it’s helpful to determine a client’s current level of resilience before coaching them toward becoming more resilient; this gives you both a starting point to bounce off of so you can help guide them beyond that level to a level of thriving in whatever area they may be struggling. This can be done by using one of the many different resilience scales. A simple one to use that has been shown to have high validity and reliability at measuring resilience is the Brief Resilience Scale (see sidebar).
Brief Resilience Scale
The Brief Resilience Scale is a “self-reported measure of an individual’s ability to bounce back, resist illness, adapt to stress or thrive in the face of adversity.” It includes six items (listed below) that can be responded to with a score of 1 to 5, from strongly disagree to strongly agree. A higher score indicates a higher level of resilience. You can access the scale at the University of California San Diego’s EMERGE (Evidence-based Measures of Empowerment for Research on Gender Equality) website, as well find information on scoring methodology.
1. I tend to bounce back quickly after hard times.
2. I have a hard time making it through stressful events.
3. It does not take me long to recover from a stressful event.
4. It is hard for me to snap back when something bad happens.
5. I usually come through difficult times with little trouble.
6. I tend to take a long time to get over setbacks in my life.
*Note: Items 2, 4 and 6 are reverse scored.
Once you have an idea of a client’s level of resilience, you can begin to help them strengthen—or perhaps build from the ground up—their levels of resilience. Guide clients toward discovering “the coping skills they do already have and build on that foundation,” advises Michaelides. “Once the skills are identified, the next step is learning which skills to implement in which situations.”
For example, Michaelides says that helping your clients establish a new routine can help them develop confidence and self-efficacy—a trait of resilience. “Starting small with one new habit or technique can help your client develop confidence and become a foundation for them to keep building upon.”
Having a support system and engaging in regular self-care are important aspects for building resilience, as well, says Michaelides. “While self-care can look different for everyone, taking time to focus on the basic elements of good nutrition, physical activity and sleep hygiene can go a long way in helping someone feel more prepared to navigate life’s challenges.”
The way a person thinks is the way they behave. Part of resilience is helping your clients to reframe distorted thoughts, using cognitive behavioral coaching techniques. “Address thought distortions,” recommends Michaelides. “When things are bad, it can be easy to rely upon irrational beliefs and thoughts—for example, ‘I’m a failure’ or ‘Things will never get better.’ Encourage clients to recognize these thoughts when they happen and reframe them. Over time, we can begin to rewire our automatic thinking and create a new dialogue within ourselves.”
Hammer uses the acronym GAIN for attributes to focus on when building resilience: gratitude, acceptance, intention and nonjudgment.
There is always something to be thankful for and a lesson to be learned from our adversity. “Focus on what you have rather than on what you don’t,” advises Hammer.
In fact, studies show that gratitude is linked with greater well-being, fosters resilience and even shows up in the brain. For example, researchers at the University of Southern California used functional magnetic resonance imaging to capture pictures of the brain when participants were feeling grateful. The study authors found that ratings of gratitude correlated with brain activity in two specific areas of the brain: the anterior cingulate cortex and the medial prefrontal cortex.
According to Hammer, it’s important to acknowledge and accept your personal limitations to the extent that you cannot change them. “Discern what you can and cannot change, and let’s work on the things we can change.”
Help your clients differentiate which aspects of their lives they have control over and which ones they don’t. Being able to let go of areas they have no business trying to control contributes to resilience as much as taking back control and recognizing options in other areas. Research supports this notion, too.
Hammer suggests using intentional mindfulness to rewire your brain to think in a more positive, optimistic way. “We all have a ‘negativity bias,’” he explains. “That is, we tend to remember the negative experiences and lose track of the positive ones. For example, in the evening we often reflect on our day in a negative way, focusing on the ‘bad’ things that happened rather than the good.”
Hammers offers the Three Good Things program at Duke University as an example. “The investigators showed that simply thinking of three good things that happened during the day as we prepare to go to bed improves our sleep and makes us happier. This requires purposefulness—we need to use our intention to change the way we think for the better.”
How to Help Your Clients Find Their Why
Helping your clients understand their why is key to coaching them to greater resilience, particularly during challenging times. In this video, Carrie Myers describes some fun tools and technologies that will help clients identify their values and create reminders for what is important to them.
Let’s face it. We’re all human. And as much as we try to avoid judging, it can still sneak into our mindsets. But judgement isn’t always reserved for others—we’re often our own worst enemies. “Things do not have to be good or bad,” states Hammer. “They just are the way they are. The constant judging our minds do—he is smarter than me, she is too talkative, this is too big or small—saps our energy. Worse of all, we tend to judge ourselves most harshly.”
How do you know when clients are judging themselves? Listen to the language they use. Words and phrases such as “good,” “bad,” “I should” or “I shouldn’t have” are clues to a more rigid mindset, leaving little room for growth. Perfectionism is a personality trait of this type of mindset, and research shows that rigid, inflexible beliefs can actually lead to psychopathology (a mental or behavioral disorder).
Lastly, if your clients don’t feel a sense of purpose for their lives, work with them on figuring it out. You can even encourage them to find some humor in their circumstances. These are two more ways to build resilience.
Life happens. There will always be circumstances from which we need to recover. The level at which that recovery happens will depend on what tools you’re willing to put into action. Help your clients go from simply surviving life to thriving in it.
Expand Your Knowledge
One of your most important jobs is keeping your participants safe and helping them develop proper exercise form. However, when offering safety and form cues, you could be inadvertently worsening participants’ confidence in their ability to perform the exercises. Rather than ignore potentially unsafe situations, you can improve participants’ perceptions of their own abilities, while also providing them with safe and effective workouts.
To foster healthy, sustainable change, it’s not enough to simply offer nutritional education or exercise programming. Rather, clients need to feel safe discussing and dismantling their fears around changing their eating, movement and other lifestyle habits. This article explores the challenges many clients face when addressing their health behaviors and offers strategies health coaches and exercise professionals can use to navigate them.
Nothing can be as powerful as stress for preventing the full experience of happiness, health, and high performance in life. Stress impacts every single cell and system of the human body and is often only exacerbated by exercise. In this online course, ACE Certified Health Coach and Master Trainer Lance Breger guides you through proven stress-reducing exercises to keep in your personal and professional toolbox that are drawn from various fields and practices, including psychology, psychiatry, tai chi and yoga.